This is definitely a rant (which is not uncommon for this blog), but it's on a non-programming topic. Yet sometimes when I stray off topic, those posts somehow become the most popular. So for example, people prefer to comment on .Trashes, .fseventsd, and .Spotlight-V100 instead of Computer Languages as Artistic Medium. I think the latter is far more insightful, but Google Analytics doesn't lie... or does it?
Anyway...as a technical person, I depend on Internet connectivity more than most. The rise of 4G networks brought modest speeds to mobile...it was enough to watch Netflix and 480p YouTube. I'd spent some time reducing my material possessions and traveling light, so I decided to keep that going with a tiny unlimited internet that fit in my pocket. I paid for hotspot/tethering (I didn't root the phone and try to slip it past the carrier)...and legitimately used my Sprint Evo 4G's unlimited data plan as my Home Internet.
It was a bleeding-edge idea...the sort of thing you'd expect from the category of people who call themselves "technomads". But Sprint appeared to mitigate the risk by giving me a whole month to try out the phone and the plan...and return it for a full refund (for any reason). That first month had modest performance, but I convinced myself that a 1.5 mbps downlink was acceptable for the convenience of not having wires and routers. Plus my connection followed me wherever I went.
Perhaps I was kidding myself about the speed being fine, but as those who know me can attest...I'm quite good at fooling myself.
Of course I knew that carriers didn't want people doing what I was doing. The writing has been on the wall that unlimited tethering has no immediate future. Sprint was just the last to allow it—they'd purchased most of Clear, had a lot of WiMax ("non-LTE 4G") bandwidth, and not enough customers using it. They'd certainly not renew it...but a 2-year contract seemed long enough to get by; I didn't know how long I'd be staying in Austin at that point anyway.
It went very wrong, and I want to talk about it. I'll detail why I canceled my Sprint contract, paid the early termination fee, and had AT&T U-verse fiber optics installed. I'll also tell you a little bit about the agony and the ecstasy of switching to no-contract. I've settled for the moment for T-Mobile, after an ordeal with a company called Simple Mobile...which was only simple in the sense of "Simple Jack". :-/
Sprint Changed The Deal
I mentioned I had a 2 year contract. But the trick (if one reads the fine print in the 100 page contract) was that the hotspot data limits weren't in there.
On the plus side: that meant I could drop the hotspot at any time without incurring a charge. On the downside: it meant they could change the terms at any given month on transfer limits, and I'd either accept them or not. They switched from unlimited to 5GB at one point...without any special notice. The line item for my hotspot sneakily went from saying "Mobile Hotspot" to "Mobile Hotspot 5GB".
In theory, the overage charges beyond 5GB were five cents a megabyte. A back-of-the-envelope calculation showed that with my usage, I'd have gotten a bill between $1k to $2k per month if they had enforced it. Fortunately that did not happen, but it could have.
A sympathetic tech on the phone explained why I'd never seen a difference in billing: my first-run Evo 4G was too old for them to bother with implementing the limitation. They hadn't figured out how to charge me for what I was using on the phone vs. on the hotspot. I just paid the constant monthly fee, none the wiser.
Yet though my 4G hotspot allocation was apparently under the radar (for the moment), there was another weapon in their arsenal to irritate me...
4G Service Degradation Due To LTE Changeover
Sometimes I'd get network speeds of 1.5 mbps down. Then, moments later...it would drop to 26 kbps. (That's bits, not bytes, mind you.) Turning off the 4G antenna—moving the phone to another point and turning it back on—would often help...but these random dropouts were bad Feng Shui and a constant tax on my life.
The malfunctions seemed arbitrary, but I wagered that it was some faulty logic on deciding what the "strongest" tower was. I could have great signal strength in terms of "bars" and great upstream bandwidth, but get these terribly low rates on downloads. Yet moving the phone and getting lower "bars" would serve up data much better.
I've spent more time on the phone with Sprint than I care to admit. But one tech I spoke to late on a Sunday night told me that towers I'd used to depend on were being converted to LTE and that the 4G I knew was on legacy life support. It was unbearable, and I knew their plan was just to take my money until I quit. They were completely successful.
3G Coverage Was Abysmal
You might imagine I have a big understanding of expectations for "3G" vs "4G". But I haven't really looked into it. As an engineer, I know there's some underlying limits to each specific technology...but I don't work in the cellular industry, so the true effective rate vs. marketing B.S. is unknown to me. I run the Speedtest.Net and that's all I have.
Yet I ran the speed test on a non-tech-savvy friend's 3G phone from T-Mobile...we were at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Austin. Her download speeds were beating my 4G download speeds by about a factor of two! I was puzzled and wondered if perhaps my phone had a bad 3G antenna, so I went into a Sprint store to compare.
I went to the phones in the store and turned off their WiFi and 4G antenna, and found another Evo was getting performance of about 1.5 mbps...matching what mine did on 4G. My phone was getting 200/300 kbps or so. I held the two phones side by side and showed it to the tech, asking if they were going to do something about it.
He said—with a straight face—that the phone in the store was newer and had a faster processor...that's why the rate was better. After his repeated attempts to tell me about how much faster this slightly newer model of Evo was, I couldn't take it. I tried to coax him into not saying something stupid, and helping me...but when he became insistent I had to say something.
me: "Look, I know this is your job, and you seem to want to be helpful. So I don't want to pull rank or sound like an oh-look-at-me kind of jerk. But facts are that I have a degree in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University, and I've worked in technology for a loooong time. And what you're saying is simply not true. This phone's CPU is doing NOTHING but drawing a needle; it's basically completely idle."
I was mad, but hedged upon hidden complexity, which I admit is there...just not what he was saying:
I'm sure the variations in the hardware and software may contribute to variations in performance in subtle ways. Each issue of a device is going to have its unusual aspects, and the 3G chip in this device could be completely different...regardless of CPU, if they're not already in the same silicon. But if Sprint is unwilling to treat this speed difference on a piece of hardware you sold me as a problem—when we're dealing with a common standard of 3G antennas—we have an issue.
I can't really tell what to do in situations like this. The guy was at least 12 years younger than me...and has a job I would not want. I'm in this odd position where I need something from a person whose technical background is no match for mine...but can't get past him. XKCD has a comic about this, which offers the quote: "I'm sorry, but this won't get fixed until I talk to an engineer".
Yet I realize who the real enemy is: The system that put us into this idiotic situation.
This kid should be in school, expanding his mind...instead of doing a zombie walk around some store...spewing randomness to befuddle and diminish the minds of people looking to communicate. In the meantime, I should be given unfettered access to the network and systems—to document and fix the problems. I'm acting like this beast is "Sprint Corporation" (for the sake of this article), but the reality is that it's an endemic problem with our society...and possibly the human species itself.
No Sprint Phones Could Call My Google Voice #
Sprint phones (my own included) could never connect to the number I use in Google Voice. I had someone tell me that I couldn't call my own Google Voice number...and tried to get me to install some app. I told him it didn't matter, that I could redirect my Google Voice to ANY number...it was incidental that the number was choosing to forward to Sprint. I even turned off the forwarding so it had no connection with Sprint whatsoever. But he could not be persuaded.
In the end, I got past that tier of "support" and pushed into another level of blatant incompetence. One might want to blame Google's silent majority...and Sprint elected to do so. I'm admittedly not terribly pleased with Google's non-existent customer support for free services, but the difference is I was paying Sprint over $100 a month. Yet their ostensible "highest" tier of support could not provide me with any smoking gun to give to Google, nothing to say "here's where you're going wrong".
AND Sprint Doesn't Care About Their System
The name printed on my government-issued ID is "Brian Dickens". Yet when trying to go through and debug phone problems, I tinkered through to some piece of the settings and found my Sprint ID was "brianickens".
This didn't strike me as an accident, as I wasn't born yesterday. I've looked at Google with and without SafeSearch. I even met the guy who wrote the original code for Net Nanny...we had Sushi together in Berkeley. He told me how the Christian people who bought it specifically asked him to code it so that it would block sites that used the word "blowjob" most of the time, unless it pertained to articles about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky (then it had an exception to pass it through, they hate democrats after all).
I also know that the "Channel 3" logo in this video for "The Sun Always Shines on TV" by A-Ha looks like a penis. It's supposed to trigger you to go "A-Ha"...get it?
I waited patiently as one girl who kept struggling trying to fix my name...with no success going through several variations...offered the insight herself:
her: ""Umm.. Hmm. I don't want to suggest that your name is offensive, but I think...I think this system keeps changing any name with 'dick' in it.""
me: ""Were you ever given a list of forbidden words in the system? Don't you think it should tell you straightforwardly instead of just dropping the 'D'?""
her: ""I guess so. But look, it doesn't really matter. That ID isn't really used for anything.""
Isn't it amazing how much people suddenly know about things that they didn't know anything about? More to the point: if it's so "under the hood" that it's not used for anything and no one sees it, why would there be a filter?
I never said that this specific thing is-or-isn't connected with any issues I was complaining about —like why Google Voice calls didn't go through. But it's definitely a bad sign when the people trusted with your communications have an "oh well, I dunno" attitude about technical malfunctions. Realizing there's no one you can escalate to can point to major problems...see Moon for a good example.)
As I usually do, I related some stories of hacking from my personal history...and how some guys used the similarity of "RNYSPACE" to "MYSPACE" (when in lowercase: "rnyspace", "myspace") to steal lots of passwords. She was lightly sympathetic, but nothing came of it. But as the Ting-Tings say: "That's NOT my name."
In extricating myself from Sprint, I bought a Google Galaxy Nexus outright for about $400 total cost. My idea was to go month-to-month with no contract to whatever GSM carrier gave me a deal, and while I could insure it through SquareTrade I decided I'd just be careful with it. Calculating all the math and the deductible, I could just allocate myself one freebie of a new phone in the next two years...and within the first year certain things (not loss or dropping) would be covered by the manufacturer warranty.
A friend suggested my first no-contract test to be with Simple Mobile. I liked their website and rhetoric...it seemed to promote US consumers waking up to the opportunities and expectations that international markets have expected (demanded?). But Simple Mobile turned out to be not easy...it's only the people you get on the phone who are "simple".
First they wouldn't send me the SIM because my billing and shipping address were different. It should have been a red flag when their support # couldn't find any way to work around this for a $10 SIM, when my current address is on file with the bank as an allowed shipping address. But fool that I am, I drove half an hour away to Fry's and bought one. Then I got caught in a loop where I couldn't port my number because although I had a SIM card number, I didn't have a "service PIN".
me: ""Fry's doesn't sell service PINs, they sell SIMs with numbers on them. You sell service. The SIM is in the phone and talking to your network. I have a credit card...it seems we have all the ingredients here?""
But we were completely deadlocked. That's despite calling a couple times to see if I could find someone who wasn't simple. No luck whatsoever...just a call center with people who couldn't do anything I couldn't do on the website—at all. The last thing I want is to deal with is people carrying my communications who are even more incompetent than Sprint, so I'm going to a T-mobile store in the A.M. and taking the SIM back to Fry's... (!)
After getting AT&T Internet at home, I began to enjoy crazy 1080p HD video and realize what I'd been missing. All that struggle with Sprint was pointless. Bureaucrats and liars, filling page after page of meaningless contract paper with everything they aren't responsible to provide you with.
When have you signed a long contract in legalese from a large company, and had it say something about what they guarantee you?
When I signed up for U-verse, I had a long metaphysical conversation with a man named Craig over the course of about nearly two hours. We talked about the importance of communications. I suggested he watch "Moon", and he suggested that I see In Time, which I will do shortly. While AT&T probably will have no shortage of opportunities to disappoint me in the future...so far it's been night and day.
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